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Opinion: Free speech, rugby, and religion

Published Australian Independent Media Network on 22.4.18

Free speech can be contentious, with heated comment both for and against
hot-button topics. 
But there’s often a third dimension that’s never discussed.
Such is the case with comments from rugby international Israel Folau.

With so much passion surrounding free speech — and quite rightly so — it’s not difficult to see why divisive arguments flare up over highly charged social issues.  But on occasions there can be an underlying third factor that gets lost in the maelstrom of pro-and-con debate.  One such example is ruby star Israel Folau, and his Instagram comment that “gays will go to hell”.

By late-April the furore has not abated, with Folau doubling down on his view that “Hell” was God’s plan for gay people, “unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”  Rugby All Black, TJ Perenara, is the latest to join a growing list of sports people to condemn Folau’s comment — they include World Cup referee Nigel Owens, Super Rugby player Brad Weber, Wallaby Nic White and Welsh great Gareth Thomas.

Conversely, Treasurer Scott Morrison has come out in support of his evangelical compatriot, praising his anti-gay remarks.  While free speech must he held as a foundational principle in a democracy, Folau’s tweet was certainly ugly and provocative.  But Morrison is on record as wanting to crusade for religious freedom — but only in defence of Christianity.  The Guardian now reports him saying, “I think he (Folau) has shown a lot of strength of character in just standing up for what he believes in and I think that’s what this country is all about.”

Apart from these predictable “he’s right” or “he’s wrong” comments, there’s a third dimension to this kind of social fracas which is seldom touched on by the media.

So what is this ‘third element’ that is relevant?

Social controversy that is underpinned by religious belief needs also to be closely scrutinised — on the basis of ‘free speech’ — and particularly on the imperative of evidence and historical truth.  A religious declaration of “God’s plan” cannot be stated as “fact” — the Old Testament as verifiable history is palpably wrong.  We know from contemporary biblical scholars — and from every branch of science — that Genesis, Exodus and the other Bronze Age stories are allegorical myth, not the word of God.

Even the Israeli Institute of Archaeology has given up finding any evidence of Moses and 600,000 escapees from Egypt wondering around the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years.  Like Adam and Eve, Noah, and the burning bush, it just didn’t happen.  Since that ancient epoch the world has progressed significantly at every level, through dramatic advances in education, science, technology, and two centuries of social enlightenment.

Obnoxious religious calls to execute gays has no place in modern society — given that it’s a primitive theology from 3,000 years ago.  It’s fine; believe in any ‘god’ you wish, but ritual religious prejudice toward other citizens is primitive behaviour.  Society has moved beyond slavery, capital punishment, and subjugating women.  Fundamentalist Christianity — as with dogmatic Islam — needs to reform and modernise.

‘Freedom of Religion’ is the basis of a current Review by Philip Ruddock, due to report to parliament on 18th May.  It is clearly stated, under two international covenants, that limitations exist for “manifesting” one’s religion.  It is unacceptable to promote religious beliefs that deliberately harm or threaten other citizens.

So media commentary on the pros and cons of Folau’s assertion is insufficient.  We need to question how he knows “God’s plan”.  Other than a mythical ancient text, why does he think “gays will go to hell?”.  He is euphoric about his devotion to Jesus — but nowhere in the New Testament is the Nazarene ever quoted as condemning homosexuals.  All anti-gay references emanate from the legitimately discredited Old Testament.

Religion has added nothing new for three millennia, except global division over conflicting beliefs.  Christianity is in decline in all progressive countries, and that trend will continue while fundamentalists persistently deny social and scientific progress — and blindly cling to the Old Testament as the “infallible and inerrant word of God.

Brian Morris is author of ‘Sacred to Secular’.
He promotes science, reason and critical thinking through
media appearances and commentary on his secular website, Plain Reason.

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